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Dev Sci. 2011 Mar;14(2):336-52.

Near-term fetuses process temporal features of speech.

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Laboratoire Psychologie et Neurosciences Cognitives, CNRS, UMR 8189, Université Paris Descartes, Institut de Psychologie, Boulogne-Billancourt, France.


The perception of speech and music requires processing of variations in spectra and amplitude over different time intervals. Near-term fetuses can discriminate acoustic features, such as frequencies and spectra, but whether they can process complex auditory streams, such as speech sequences and more specifically their temporal variations, fast or relatively slow acoustic variations, is unclear. We recorded the cardiac activity of 82 near-term fetuses (38 weeks GA) in quiet sleep during a silent control condition and four 15 s streams presented at 90 dB SPL Leq: two piano melodies with opposite contours, a natural Icelandic sentence and a chimera of the sentence--all its spectral information was replaced with broadband noise, leaving its specific temporal variations in amplitude intact without any phonological information. All stimuli elicited a heart rate deceleration. The response patterns to the melodies were the same and differed significantly from those observed with the Icelandic sentence and its chimera, which did not differ. The melodies elicited a monophasic heart rate deceleration, indicating a stimulus orienting reflex while the Icelandic and its chimera evoked a sustained lower magnitude response, indicating a sustained attentional response or more focused information processing. A conservative interpretation of the data is that near-term fetuses can perceive sound streams and the rapid temporal variations in amplitude that are specific to speech sounds with no spectral variations at all.

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